Sexual violence is difficult for both readers and writers. Some will avoid both, which is an absolutely valid choice. Some believe the writing and reading of sexual violence is an effective way to spread awareness, make it real and immediate as only narrative can. For some who have experienced sexual violence, reading and writing it can be a cathartic experience in which the voiceless finally have voice and control where once they did not. In Maya Angelou‘s courageous memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” she gifts readers with not only her lyrical voice and master storytelling, but also a trauma shared by many girls and women who survive in silence:
from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou
Because of the lurid tales we read and our vivid imaginations and, probably, memories of our brief but hectic lives, Bailey and I were afflicted—he physically and I mentally. He stuttered, and I sweated through horrifying nightmares. He was constantly told to slow down and start again, and on my particularly bad nights my mother would take me in to sleep with her, in the large bed with Mr. Freeman.
Because of a need for stability, children easily become creatures of habit. After the third time in Mother’s bed, I thought there was nothing strange about sleeping there.
One morning she got out of bed for an early errand, and I fell asleep again. But I awoke to a pressure, a strange feeling on my left leg. It was too soft to be a hand, and it wasn’t the touch of clothes. Whatever it was, I hadn’t encountered the sensation in all the years of sleeping with Momma. It didn’t move, and I was too startled to. I turned my head a little to the left to see if Mr. Freeman was awake and gone, but his eyes were open and both hands were above the cover. I knew, as if I had always known, it was his “thing” on my leg.
He said, “Just stay right here, Ritie, I ain’t gonna hurt you.” I wasn’t afraid, a little apprehensive, maybe, but not afraid. Of course I knew that lots of people did “it” and they used their “things” to accomplish the deed, but no one I knew had ever done it to anybody. Mr. Freeman pulled me to him, and put his hand between my legs. He didn’t hurt, but Momma had drilled into my head: “Keep your legs closed, and don’t let nobody see your pocketbook.”
“Now, I didn’t hurt you. Don’t get scared.” He threw back the blankets and his “thing” stood up like a brown ear of corn. He took my hand and said, “Feel it.” It was mushy and squirmy like the inside of a freshly killed chicken. Then he dragged me on top of his chest with his left arm, and his right hand was moving so fast and his heart was beating so hard that I was afraid that he would die. Ghost stories revealed how people who died wouldn’t let go of whatever they were holding. I wondered if Mr. Freeman died holding me how I would ever get free. Would they have to break his arms to get me loose?
Finally he was quiet, and then came the nice part. He held me so softly that I wished he wouldn’t ever let me go. I felt at home. From the way he was holding me I knew he’d never let me go or let anything bad ever happen to me. This was probably my real father and we had found each other at last. But then he rolled over, leaving me in a wet place and stood up.
“I gotta talk to you, Ritie.” He pulled off his shorts that had fallen to his ankles, and went into the bathroom.
It was true the bed was wet, but I knew I hadn’t had an accident. Maybe Mr. Freeman had one while he was holding me. He came back with a glass of water and told me in a sour voice, “Get up. You peed in the bed.” He poured water on the wet spot, and it did look like my mattress on many mornings…. (80)
In the above excerpt, the narrator Ritie experiences sexual trauma at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. The power in this scene is not only the raw honesty of it, a young girl’s innocence, perspective and experience, but also the education it offers, the frequency and ease in which sexual violence occurs and is kept secret. Let’s take a look at Angelou’s vulnerable and nuanced mastery:
- FOUNDATION: Earlier in the novel, the narrator shares her early childhood in Stamps with her grandmother and brother, where their parents left them. Recently, Ritie and her brother have reconnected with their mother who lavishes them with affection previously denied to them. Enter Mother’s boyfriend.
- HONEST PERSPECTIVE: Through this horrific trauma, Ritie is unaware of its impact. She is a girl and has no understanding of sex or rape. She merely wants to be loved. This honest perspective is not only brutal, it is true and common among young abused children. Though it is painful to read, it educates readers on the reality of how perpetrators manipulate children into keeping their secrets.
- PERSPECTIVE: This violence is told through the survivor’s first person point of view and perspective, immediately securing empathy from the reader. This also allows the narrator to use euphemistic syntax and diction, “pocketbook.”
- SUSPENSE: The reader knows this abuse will continue. It will get worse. The reader has driving questions: how and when will Ritie find her voice, accuse her abuser and survive the trauma? The title, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, supports these driving questions, suggesting some sort of cathartic survival.
Writing Exercise: Sexual Violence
Choose a character and scene from a narrative on which you are currently working. Open a separate document and copy paste the scene into this new document so that you keep your original words. Explore the sexual violence through the survivor’s perspective, language and vulnerability, such as in Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her fiction, prose-poetry and essays have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.
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